Three Strange Days

For three strange days a few weeks ago (June 1-3) I listened to a Lutheran broadcast on Issues, Etc. about Eastern Orthodoxy. The person chosen for the broadcast was David Jay Webber, a Lutheran minister who has spent some time in Russian-Slav world, along with the host Todd Wilken.

Conservative Lutherans continue to blast Orthodoxy with caricature, half truths and material deployed without sufficient explanation and designed to shock the non-Orthodox, specifically into the conclusion that the Orthodox are barely Christian, if at all.  Unfortunately this program was no exception. I have gone through the programs in a separate post above. Here I use some space to give some advice to all of the Lutheran critics.

You have got to stop this kind of argumentation. What I mean is deploying arguments from the outside and really bad ones at that. And by that I mean argument predicated on showing the falsity of a view grounded in assumptions that its advocates would reject. These come in two forms. Either they are specifically dependent on non-Orthodox presuppositions or they are just caricature and straw men. Outsiders rarely understand and can effectively critique a position. As one of my former instructors, Merrill Ring used to note concerning the fall of Logical Positivism, that when the attackers finally entered the castle of Logical Positivism, they found it uninhabited. Its most effective critics were its advocates.

And the Lutherans need to stop for their own good. When critics of a position deploy arguments that are easily answered and/or shown to be based on misunderstanding and caricature, they loose credibility in the eyes of their audience. And if I have learned one thing about apologetics and persuasion it is that without credibility, your arguments aren’t worth very much. You can have perfectly valid and sound arguments for a position but if you lack credibility in the eyes of your audience they won’t give you the time of day. If Lutherans take the arguments like the ones given on the show and get hammered, not only will their confidence in the proponants of such arguments will be greatly diminished, but also their confidence in the correctness of Lutheran theology. This will be the first step to opening their minds up to the possibility to a different theological model and a different way of understanding the Bible.

Furthermore, it makes it much, much easier for me to persuade people of Orthodoxy when I can easily blow through criticisms and show that the critics is really under or misinformed. If you wish to continue the flow of Lutheran converts to Orthodoxy, by all means continue what you are presently doing.

If the Lutherans wish to give criticisms of Orthodoxy that will challenge apologists for Orthodoxy and help retain members of their own fold, they are going to have to do their homework. And this means that they are going to have understand Orthodoxy from the inside out rather than the outside looking in. They will have to present it in such a way that its better advocates will recognize it while bringing out alleged inconsistencies between its fundamental principles or presuppositions. Until they do so, they will always be at a serious disadvantage.

And they need to be aware that they are already at a serious disadvantage from the get go. Orthodoxy is not really familiar to them, and neither are Orthodox reads of history, the fathers and the Scriptures.  Orthodox authors are virtually unknown to them beyond the pop stuff like Ware’s book. And let me just get this out of the way. One of the top signs that someone doesn’t know Orthodoxy is that they cite Ware’s book as some be all and end all papal encyclical. This is not to say that the esteemed bishop’s book is bad, but when the Orthodox say we have no pope, we mean it.

Not only is it necessary to present the position one is attacking in a recognizable way, one needs to then construct objections to the effect that there exist within it inconsistent core assumptions. Either one can believe in say the Orthodox view of the Trinity or Chalcedonian Christology, but not both. In either case, Orthodoxy as a whole would be false. The only out of the dilemma would be either to deny Orthodoxy or show that there is some third way, a tertium quid that both can be true. Such would be an effective critique because it would strike at the heart of the system. So far, nothing from Protestant and specifically Lutheran critics of Orthodoxy even comes close.

9 Responses to Three Strange Days

  1. Gina says:

    It really comes down to simple integrity. You’re right to warn about not succumbing to the temptation of warning people off using strawmen. When people get a peek past the straw and realize it’s straw, they’ll start to wonder what you’re hiding and why you feel you have to resort to such measures.

    Of course, a charitable take is that the host and interviewee simply don’t know that they don’t know.

  2. John says:

    “First, if one is trying to argue that Lutherans shouldn’t convert to Orthodoxy, it is perfectly legitimate to do this by trying to convince them that they can’t do so while hanging on to certain deeply held beliefs.”

    The question is, what was the aim of these podcasts? They pretend to be all ecumenical, referring to “our Orthodox friends” or some such, and praising one or two good things in Orthodoxy. So they purport to be some kind of education about some brethren in Christ. But then they go off the rails into rhetoric on the same level of nuance as “those Orthodox worship Mary and are idolators”. It fails as an exercise in ecumenism. It fails as good education. It fails in telling the truth. And it fails as good apologetics. Maybe it succeeds in the Jack Chick or Peter Ruckman school of keeping the flock in line.

  3. Christopher,

    Please read the preceding sentence.

  4. Either one can believe in say the Orthodox view of the Trinity or Chalcedonian Christology, but not both.

    What do you mean by this? Are you saying there is a difference between Orthodox Triadology and Chalcedonian Christology?

  5. Kenny,

    I think my point was that a method showing inconsistency between Orthodoxy and Lutheranism won’t pick out which model is true, which is what people really want to know. Second, the program wasn’t aiming at doing what you suggested.

    I am not clear on what you mean by coherence since some set of propositions can be consistent but not cohere. If you think the arguments that you have seen here are hopeless in the way you describe, it is because I’d suggest that you have not grasped the arguments. The arguments for example that Protestantism is incompatible with say Chalcedonian Christology turn on the assumption that Protestants profess adherence to it, which they do.

    Secondly, your line about ecclesiology is factually incorrect since Lutherans for example affirm such a connection between ecclesiology and the incarnation. Second, the Reformed do as well, which is why they go to great pains to deny a traditional reading of the communication idiomatum and affirm it as nothing more than a way of speech. This is why they have the doctrine of the church that they do, as an instrument of the divine will. This is quite explicit in a number of classic texts from their tradition.
    My argument was never to ask the Lutherans to think that the councils are inconsistent so I am not sure how you got that from my comments. Rather my argument was that their theology is inconsistent with their own theology and since they profess adherence to both, they can reject both, find a tertium quid or reject one or the other.

    It is possible for them to start an argument as to what the councils mean, but I think they will end up on the short end of the stick on that score as well. Moreover, your claim that there is no one text that is definitive for the Orthodox as to what the councils teach is somewhat misleading since many of the councils pick out extended patristic texts as official and infallible expositions of the teaching of the councils. Consequently, your gloss which ends up glossing Orthodoxy as suffering from the same kind of epistemic and normative problems as Protestantism just doesn’t fly. That dog don’t hunt.
    As for Ware’s books I was thinking of the Orthodox Church, which is pretty sparse. If you think one can make serious objections there of the exposition of theosis which is only a few sentences long if memory serves is hardly adequate to launch a serious criticism for example.

  6. Kenny says:

    Even if the broadcast is supposed to be “aiming at” determining “which one if either is true” that fact alone doesn’t determine which premises it may appeal to. What I am saying is simply that external critiques can be legitimate in the appropriate contexts. To take a trivial example, suppose two atheists are together disputing about whether Christianity might be true. They argue as follows:

    1) There is no God.
    2) If there is no God, then Christianity is false.
    :. 3) Christianity is false.

    I actually see nothing wrong with this argument, as long as everyone involved in the discussion accepts its premises. If someone is trying to argue a Christian out of his view, then this argument is obviously not a reasonable way to do that, since Christians reject (1), but that isn’t the only context in which one might present arguments about Christianity, and that is precisely the difference between an internal and an external critique.

    By ‘tension’ I mean that a view may not contain a formal contradiction but doesn’t cohere well. Arguments which I think I have seen here (I definitely have seen them on some Catholic and Orthodox blogs) that Protestantism is wrong because it doesn’t have the right kind of ‘incarnational ecclesiology’ or whatever are hopeless if they are supposed to show a contradiction, but may perhaps be able to show a tension: the fact that Protestants don’t view the Church through the lens of Chalcedon, doesn’t show that they don’t view Christ through the lens of Chalcedon. However, given the doctrine of the Church as body of Christ, this may be a problem. The Protestants can retreat, saying that the ‘body of Christ’ line is only a metaphor and metaphors only go so far so that Chalcedonian Christology is not really applicable in ecclesiology, but (if the argument goes through) the Orthodox have the upper hand in that they are able to take the metaphor more seriously. If their argument succeeds, they’ve shown a tension in the Protestant view, but it falls short of a contradiction.

    “it isn’t prima facia a problem for me as well as for them on the mere fact that they like other heterodox parties claim adherences to conciliar teaching.” This isn’t even what I said. What I said was “conservative Lutherans mostly purport to believe in the Ecumenical Councils, so if there is an inconsistency there it is a problem for them as well as for you.” What I meant was, you can’t ask the Lutherans, in critiquing Orthodoxy, to argue that the councils are inconsistent because (conservative) Lutherans and Orthodox share the belief that the councils got it right – they just disagree as to what the councils mean. As a result, the Lutherans are going to have to argue against particular Orthodox expositions of the councils. However, there is no one document explaining the meaning of the councils which is binding on all Orthodox (I understand the Russians do have some modern confessional documents), so they will have to rely on the writings of some theologians, which always leaves open the possibility that other Orthodox thinkers will say “but that’s not how I understand it at all.” This is, as I said, the same thing that happens in trying to argue against Protestantism. Catholicism makes an easier target because of the abundance of authoritative documents.

    Are you thinking of Ware’s book The Orthodox Way? If so, I think I agree with you that there isn’t much there to build an argument against (though it was a while ago that I read it, so I may not be remembering everything). However, his book The Orthodox Church (again, it’s been a while) struck me as rather more substantive, though it is still definitely written on a popular level and is definitely not anything like a systematic theology.

  7. Kenny,

    It is perfectly legitimate to show that certain positions or practices are inconsistent between Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. But those kinds of criticisms have two problems. First, one has to accurately represent within reason such positions and practices and second, in the end they only tell us what we already knew, namely that Orthodoxy is not Lutheranism. what we want to know is, which one if either is true? And that was what the broadcast was aiming at.

    I require inconsistency because I don’t know what “tension” is supposed to mean. I know how people toss the word around, but in most cases it ends being a fudge word. Second, given the incommensurability of paradigms, how exactly should one proceed to give a critique if not in this manner? If there is no inconsistency in other systems then we are left with a form of relativism or fideism, which I think is unacceptable and false.

    And it is how authors of this blog argue, in fact it is how I routinely argue both here and elsewhere, deploying a kind of presuppositional method. I routinely argue that Protestantism is a theological squatter living on Orthodox Christological land. Their claim of land rights is inconsistent with the land upon which they are living and so they need to choose. Give up the land, the christology for example, or give up the claim, namely the Protestant principles. It is the same way I have argued with atheists who argue for morality or causation on non-Christian metaphysical assumptions. This is exactly the point of posts I have done in the past like A Deformed Christ showing that Reformation Christologies are not Chalcedonian.

    Even if the number of core theological presuppositions or non-negotiables were small, parsimony here doesn’t of itself preclude inconsistency. And second, I don’t think the number is in fact small. Christology for example may be one theological hoouse, but there is a whole mess of stuff inside. Further up and further in as it were. Confessional Lutherans purport to hold to conciliar Christology, but so do the Reformed. It in no way follows that they in fact do so. I know that the Reformed don’t and I have serious reservations about the Lutherans as well. So no, it isn’t prima facia a problem for me as well as for them on the mere fact that they like other heterodox parties claim adherences to conciliar teaching.

    Ware is pretty popular but there really isn’t enough in Ware’s single pop book to generate any serious claim to inconsistency. So showing that his theological outlook contains serious problems simply isn’t feasible. Its too brief.

    At this point we haven’t even gotten there since programs like the one I have heard practically make historical facts up out of thin air or put out such distorted and misleading statements that could not even be plausibly grounded in Ware’s single book.

  8. Kenny says:

    I don’t know the show, so for all I know it might really be very bad, but I do want to point out a couple of criticisms that I take to be misplaced.

    First, if one is trying to argue that Lutherans shouldn’t convert to Orthodoxy, it is perfectly legitimate to do this by trying to convince them that they can’t do so while hanging on to certain deeply held beliefs. I myself find Orthodoxy attractive in many ways, but am unable to reconcile myself to certain beliefs and practices associated with it (no need to go into that now). If they can really show that Orthodoxy involves beliefs that most of their audience will find unacceptable, this is a perfectly appropriate external critique.

    Second, you ask for a very strong form of internal critique when you say that “one needs to then construct objections to the effect that there exist within it inconsistent core assumptions.” First, you require strict inconsistency rather than merely tension and, second, you require that the inconsistency be found in core assumptions. I have a high enough opinion of Orthodox theology that I don’t think anyone is going to be able to deliver this kind of critique. However, I would argue that the same is true of many theological systems, probably including Lutheranism, and maybe even Calvinism. (On the latter, it seems to me that the only potential inconsistency among core assumptions would be the ‘author of sin’ problem.) As such, this kind of standard is probably not very useful in interfaith dialogue. Furthermore, its not at all how the authors of this blog typically argue against Protestantism.

    Another trouble is that with Orthodoxy, as with non-confessional Protestantism, the set of truly fundamental assumptions is relatively small. From your remarks, it seems that you have the Councils in mind. Furthermore, I think conservative Lutherans mostly purport to believe in the Ecumenical Councils, so if there is an inconsistency there it is a problem for them as well as for you. So they shouldn’t take that direction.

    It seems, then, that if they are going to launch an internal critique it is appropriate, as long as they don’t overstate the strength of their conclusions, to show that there are serious tensions in particular brands of Orthodox theology, rather than that there are strict inconsistencies which infect all brands of Orthodoxy. Ware is pretty popular, and probably represents the brand of Orthodoxy that most appeals to their Lutheran audience, so showing that Ware’s theology contains serious tensions might be a perfectly legitimate thing to do, as long as they don’t go on to claim that they have disproven the entire Orthodox system.

  9. Yudikris says:

    Glory to God! Honestly, I am wondering, how could it be, that ‘christians’ find the joy in the theological disputes and after that they left empty. Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy, just as Christ is Christ. 🙂

    Thanks for this excellent piece,

    Greetings from Indonesia


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